President Obama's decision to spend three straight days crisscrossing tiny Iowa this week underscores a glaring reality facing his re-election campaign: The Hawkeye State isn't the cakewalk it was four years ago.
The traditional swing state helped launch Obama's national political career in 2008 when its caucus voters picked him over better-known Democrats and put his long-shot campaign on the glide path to front-runner status.
The strong sentiment Iowa voters showed the former senator from neighboring Illinois, however, faded over the past three years.
"He's not doing as well in Iowa as the other battleground states," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and a former longtime Iowa political reporter. "It's hard for him to reclaim the magic from last time. In Iowa, the economy is withering in the fields [because of the drought] -- people are in a bad mood."
A Rasmussen Reports poll released on the eve of the president's Iowa trek shows Republican Mitt Romney with a 2 percentage-point lead.
Obama will kick off a three-day bus tour of less friendly Iowa turf Monday in Council Bluffs. He'll travel Tuesday to Oskaloosa, Marshalltown and Waterloo before wrapping up the trip Wednesday with first lady Michelle Obama in Dubuque and Davenport.
As Obama turns his attention to Iowa, Romney is on a bus tour of his own. He's visiting several battleground states, including Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.
The Iowa that Obama won in 2008 is now leaning toward rival Republicans. The Republican primary earlier this year meant Iowa airwaves were inundated with GOP contenders making a case for replacing Obama. And while Democrats had 100,000 more registered voters in the Hawkeye State in 2008, that edge now belongs to Republicans, who have 21,000 more voters registered than Democrats.
"Obama is trying to rally a dispirited and disappointed base," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "Enthusiasm is up for the opposition, and independents here are thinking about giving the other party a chance."
Goldford said Obama would need massive voter turnout in urban areas like Des Moines, Iowa City and Davenport to offset likely dramatic losses in the rural portions of the agriculture-dependent state.
That Obama is devoting so much time to a state with just six electoral votes indicates just how important each battleground state is in an election that could hinge on a few thousand votes in the most heavily contested areas.
Obama is betting he can reprise his Cinderella story from Iowa in 2008 and ultimately convince disillusioned voters there to rally behind him.
"Iowa, you and I, we go a long way back," Obama said during one of his many recent trips to the state. "So we've got some history together. And together we're going to make some more history for years to come."
But the president is also hedging his bets with a barrage of attack ads in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest that accuse Romney of being a corporate raider who outsourced American jobs.
"We are drowning in ads," Goldford lamented.